Trainer Mark Casse swept both 2-year-old stakes races on closing day of Churchill Downs’ Spring Meet with the John C. Oxley-owned pair of Classic Empire and Pretty City Dancer in the Bashford Manor (GIII) and Debutante Stakes, respectively, and will attempt to mirror that accomplishment Saturday when he sends out Thirstforlife in the $150,000 Iroquois Presented by TwinSpires.com (GIII) and Dream Dancing in the $200,000 Pocahontas Presented by TwinSpires.com (GII).
Both the Iroquois and Pocahontas serve as the first qualifying races on the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” and “Road to the Kentucky Oaks” and will award the Top 4 finishers points on a 10-4-2-1 scale. They are also a part of the Breeders’ Cup “Win & You’re In” program where the winners of each race will receive an automatic berth to the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and 14 Hands Winery Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, both Grade I races that carry a purse of $2 million.
“Obviously it would be a great accomplishment,” said Casse’s assistant trainer David Carroll. “It would speak volumes of the horses under our care, the job Mark does and the team that he has put together and obviously the owners giving us horses of this caliber.”
Owned by Gary Barber and St. Elias Stable, Thirstforlife was a third beaten six lengths last time out behind Klimt in Del Mar’s Best Pal (GIII) who came back to win the Del Mar Futurity (GI). The son of Stay Thirsty will be trying two turns for the first time when he runs in the Iroquois.
“We’re looking forward to getting him around two turns,” Carroll said. “I don’t think we learned too much after his last race. He broke sharp, took back and they went a slow pace and ran one-two all the way around so we don’t really know where he fits but (Saturday) we should learn a lot about him. Obviously it’s a good field and a lot of horses on the up and up. I think (trainer) Dale (Romans)’s horse (Not This Time) looks like a promising colt also. We’ll learn a lot more after the race.”
While Thirstforlife is coming fresh out of a Grade III, his stable mate Dream Dancing will be taking things up a notch. Her last effort came when she broke her maiden on the second attempt going two turns on the turf at Saratoga. She will be trying dirt for the first time.
“Mark likes to use Saratoga for two turns,” Carroll said. “There are no two-turn dirt races, only turf races and often if they have a dirt pedigree, he’ll put them on the turf just for the experience and conditioning. She’s bred for dirt, her family says dirt and obviously she won on turf. She shipped down a few days ago, she’s in great shape and we’re looking forward to running her also.”
In her career debut on Aug. 7, the daughter of Tapit was second behind the Leah Gyarmati-trained Coastal who went on to win Saratoga’s P.G. Johnson Stakes. In the same race, Dream Dancing finished ahead of Joust who went on to break her maiden at Kentucky Downs on Sept. 11.
“They’ve done a great job with her at Saratoga,” Carroll said. “The form is good and we’re looking forward to leading her over there and hopefully run a big race. Mark will say that there are no two-turn dirt races and the turf is easier on them and also a lot of conditioning from them. Once you try that bottom, then you can try them on the dirt. It seems to work well.”
Casse will be in search of his first Pocahontas victory with Dream Dancing and has one Iroquois victory under his belt with Uncaptured in 2012. Jockey Florent Geroux has the mount aboard both Casse trainees.
PROMISING 2-YEAR-OLD NOT THIS TIME STEPS UP IN IROQUOIS – Albaugh Family Stable’s Not This Time is the “total package,” according to trainer Dale Romans, who hopes that this half-brother to dual Grade I winner Liam’s Map will deliver a victory for the Romans barn in Saturday’s $150,000 Iroquois Presented by TwinSpires.com (GIII) following an impressive 10-length maiden victory at Ellis Park on Aug. 12.
The homebred son of Giant’s Causeway’s Ellis Park romp was a big turnaround from his career debut at Churchill on June 28, where he was a well-beaten fifth beaten 10 lengths behind the Eddie Kenneally-trained Bitumen, the eventual winner of Saratoga’s Sanford (GII) on July 23.
“He’s pedigree, he’s intelligence, he’s looks, he’s talent … he’s got it all,” said Romans, who won the Iroquois with Cleburne in 2013. “This is a good field of horses, there are a lot of good horses in the race and it looks like there is a lot of speed. This will be a good test for him to see if he steps up where we think that he can. Endurance is no question, he’s a good horse.”
In recent years, Romans has left many of his quality 2-year-olds at Churchill, rather than taking them to Saratoga where he based during a good portion of the summer.
“When I started a long time ago I would take a lot of 2-year-olds to Saratoga,” Romans said. “I just saw a pattern of horses working way too hard too early to compete up there and it’s paid off for me to just leave them behind and run at Ellis and it’s really become some very high quality racing. It’s a good time of year to break a horse’s maiden and it’s a safe surface to run on. It’s worked well for me.
“Hopefully he just steadily improves. He doesn’t have to go too far right now. He’s a good horse but we would just like to see him keep getting better with every race.”
Robby Albarado, the pilot aboard Not This Time’s two career starts, returns to the saddle for the Iroquois.
GORDER TOUTS POCAHONTAS ENTRANT SULLY’S DREAM – Following an eye-popping 12-length maiden victory at Ellis Park on July 30, trainer Kellyn Gorder can’t help but speak blessings of his promising 2-year-old filly Sully’s Dream, who is taking a jump up in class in Saturday’s $200,000 Pocahontas Presented by TwinSpires.com (GII).
“Halfway through the summer I sent a text to the owner (Ralph Ebert) and said, ‘I think this could be the best filly I’ve had in my barn,’” said Gorder, who seeks his first graded stakes victory since the 2013 Jefferson Cup (GIII) with General Election. “I really don’t think we’ve got close to seeing what she’s capable of and I think highly of her. I’m not sure that she beat much in that race, but it really is hard to judge. She’s been working with older horses and physically she doesn’t look 2; she looks like a 3-year-old.”
The Pocahontas serves as a part of the Breeders’ Cup “Win & You’re In Juvenile Fillies Division,” whose winner will receive an automatic berth into the $2 million 14 Hands Winery Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (GI) at Santa Anita on Nov. 5. Should this daughter of Colonel John return to the winner’s circle, she will likely be California bound.
“If she punches the ticket here, that’s what we’ll do,” Gorder said. “I’m a little concerned with the outside post but it’s nothing I’d be too nervous about. The way she goes about her work is just so professional. She does everything so easily and I think that she’s pretty special.”
Sully’s Dream will receive the riding services of Robby Albarado, who was aboard for her astonishing maiden win.
LANERIE HOPES FOR MORE SUCCESS DURING SEPTEMBER MEET – Last year, jockey Corey Lanerie entered the Churchill Downs September Meet fresh off a frustrating 0-for-57 at Saratoga, but this year he stayed home to ride at Ellis Park, which resulted in a riding title at the Henderson, Ky. oval.
The Lafayette, La. native finished off the Ellis Park meet with 26 wins in 125 starts banking $557,782 when riding at the track.
“Last year I knew going into Saratoga that I’d be up against some tough competition,” Lanerie said. “Did I think that I would not win a race? No, but I knew how tough it would be and coming home I have my people that are loyal to me and I’m grateful for my good business here.”
Lanerie will be in search of his 12th Churchill title in the past 13 meets.
“I got to stay home and win some races and was fortunate enough to be leading rider at Ellis Park,” Lanerie said. “I’m very glad to get back to Churchill. I expect that we can hopefully kick off against winning a bunch of races and try my best to stay on top.”
SATURDAY’S FIRST RACE MOVED TO 2:30 P.M.; LOUISVILLE/FLORIDA STATE ATTENDEES TO RECEIVE FREE ADMISSION – With a nationally-televised ACC showdown between the 10th-ranked University of Louisville football team and second-ranked Florida State at nearby Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium on Saturday at noon, Central Avenue is certain to be bustling with activity this weekend.
Track officials proactively moved back Saturday’s post time from 12:45 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. so fans could enjoy the best of both worlds and to help ease area traffic.
Those who attend the big game are invited to visit Churchill Downs afterward free of charge on Saturday simply by showing their ticket stub. Eleven races, including four stakes events, are scheduled Saturday and the last race is scheduled for 7:29 p.m.
ESPN’s College GameDay will visit Louisville for the first time for Saturday’s game, and there will be some elements from Churchill Downs fused into the broadcast, including track bugler Steve Buttleman starting the show at 9 a.m. with the “Call to the Post.”
FAMILY ADVENTURE DAY IS SUNDAY – Presented by Kroger and in partnership with Kosair Children’s Hospital, Family Adventure Day at Churchill Downs will be held Sunday (Sept. 18) – first Sunday of the September Meet.
Families are encouraged to bring the kids to Churchill Downs for a day of racing and family activities including pony rides, inflatables, petting zoo, stick horse races in the Paddock, face painting and more. New activities for this event include Sportsdrome Speedway race cars and drivers; the Air 60 police helicopter and the Belle of Louisville float. Kosair Children’s Hospital activities will feature the Caring for Your Child’s Mind, Body and Spirit: Mighty Titans obstacle course; kids’ yoga; and a “just for kids” craft activity.
Tickets for adults and children age 3 and up are just $8 when purchased online in advance at ChurchillDowns.com, and include unlimited access to all kid-friendly activities through 5 p.m. Churchill Downs is also offering a Family Four Pack that includes four Family Adventure Day tickets, four family meals in the Family Adventure Day area and two racing programs for only $44.